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“Those who binge on [sugary] foods have a greater chance of sudden death from heart attack. Our research connects the dots, showing the link between diet and what’s happening in real time in the arteries.” Michael Shechter, MD, Science Daily (June 27, 2009)


More Evidence Every Meal Counts

Landmark Study Shows Impact of Sugary Foods on Arteries

Several years back, I wrote about the direct effects of food on the body. For years, we’ve known about the long term consequences of unhealthy eating. For example, over time a diet high in saturated fat has been shown to cause gradual hardening and narrowing of the arteries. A sedentary lifestyle can have similar effects. Recent research has shown that a single meal can have major consequences.

One study found that inflammation and damage to the blood vessels happens within hours after a meal high in saturated fat. Another study demonstrated that exercise can have an immediate positive effect; it showed that a single aerobic exercise session soon after eating can substantially mitigate the negative effects of a high-fat meal. You’ll find the details on both studies in my article Every Meal Counts: www.cbass.com/Everymealcounts.htm

We now have a study showing the “acute” (severe, abrupt) effect of meals high in sugar. The study was led by Michael Shechter, MD, of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine and the Heart Institute of Sheba Medical Center, and is reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (June 16, 2009).   

According to the report, high blood sugar following a meal is recognized as a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It is also well known that foods high in refined carbohydrates such as white bread and sugar-laden cereals cause hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Furthermore, hyperglycemia is known to suppress arterial function; how that happens, however, is not well understood. Dr. Shechter and his colleagues wanted to examine the effect of sugary foods on artery function and blood flow.

Here's what they did and what they learned. 

Study Details and Results

They fed 56 healthy overweigh or obese volunteers (mean age 48) four different meals on separate mornings: cornflake mush with milk, a pure sugar mixture, a high-fiber cereal, or a water placebo. Except for the water, all of the meals contained 50 grams of carbohydrate. Each subject had all four meals over the course of the study.

Blood sugar of all subjects was measured fasting and 30, 60, 90 and 120 minutes after each meal. In addition, brachial artery (the principle artery of the upper arm) flow-mediated dilation (FMD) was measured while fasting and 2 hours after each meal. This was done using a device much like a blood pressure cuff to cut off and then release blood flow while monitoring change in artery diameter and blood flow. The device, which apparently has not been approved for use in the U.S., allowed the researchers to visualize arterial function in real time.

Here are the results.

Blood sugar levels at 30, 60, and 90 minutes were significantly higher after the cornflake and sugar meals, compared to the high-fiber cereal (or water). Blood sugar peaked at about 160 for the sugar, 140 for the cornflakes, and 120 for the high-fiber. (Normal fasting levels are 80 to 109) All readings were essentially back to baseline at 120 minutes.

Based on the Glycemic Index (GI), blood sugar spikes for each of the experimental meals were about as expected. GI ratings, which reflect blood sugar response to different foods, are 100 for sugar, 77 for cornflakes, and 40 for high-fiber cereal. (For more about the Glycemic Index: http://www.cbass.com/GlycemicIndex.htm )       

Now we come to the all-important pressure-cuff or flow mediated dilation (FMD) readings. FMD was significantly depressed at 120 minutes after the cornflake and sugar meals, but not after the high-fiber cereal. Artery diameter after the blood pressure cuff was released went down (from baseline) after all three meals, but significantly so only after the cornflake and sugar meals. Change in FMD after the high-fiber meal was not significant.

“This study shows for the first time that high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meals significantly suppress brachial artery FMD in nondiabetic, overweight and obese, healthy volunteers,” the researcher wrote in their report. They cautioned, however, that glucose (blood sugar) itself may not be the only “mediator of endothelial [artery lining] dysfunction.” They suggest that insulin and nitric oxide may also be key factors in artery function.

Researchers are constrained in what they can say in the study report. What they say to the press outside of the formal report is often more interesting and meaningful, especially to the lay readers. I found that to be true in this case.

Here’s some of what Dr. Shechter told Science Daily and was repeated by many other news sources, including the Israeli press.

The Take-Away Message

“Looking inside” the arteries, Shechter says he was able to visualize that cornflakes and sugar caused stretching or swelling in the arteries for several hours, when blood sugar was spiking. He explained that elasticity in arteries is generally a good thing. But when aggravated over time, a sudden expansion of the artery wall can cause a number of negative effects, including reduced flexibility, which can cause heart disease or heart attack.

Enormous peaks—in blood sugar and artery expansion—indicating arterial stress were found after eating the high-glycemic foods.  

“We knew high glycemic foods were bad for the heart. Now we have a mechanism that shows how,” said Dr. Shechter. “Foods like cornflakes, white bread, French fries, and sweetened soda all put undue stress on our arteries. We’ve explained for the first time how high glycemic carbs can affect the progression of heart disease.” During the consumption of foods high in sugar, there appears to be a temporary and sudden dysfunction in the walls of the arteries. 

Dr. Shechter says to stick to foods like oatmeal, fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts, which do not cause spikes in blood sugar. He also recommends regular exercise.

The evidence that every meal counts is mounting. I’m listening. Are you?

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